If you are not at least a little bit scared of the clown epidemic sweeping the nation, than you are a braver soul than I am. Everywhere you look, costumed maniacs are seemingly taking over our towns. What do they want? Is this an organized clown coup? My reaction to the whole thing is somewhere between “peeing my pants” and “cautiously nervous.” It’s not the clowns that bother me, per se, and I don’t think there’s a satanic cult counting down to a Purge-like revolution come Halloween. I’m actually more unnerved by the legions of bored frat bros and loners who decided to take up arms (arms being masks) and join the chaos for the sheer purpose of scaring the hell out of everyone. It’s also unnerving to think about those who want to hunt them, as well as any violence stemming from clown-related chaos. None of this is great or funny anymore, except in the ha ha what is this terrible, ridiculous world we live in, is it OK to laugh!? kind of way.
When a real-world urban legend in the making like this happens, the internet immediately begins to collect and catalog it. Which, for me, makes it much easier to assuage my fears. The very tool that’s disseminating this information can be used to dispel it. So I set out to do just that.
Creepy clown sightings have been occurring since the end of summer, increasing steadily in the last couple of weeks. Handy Twitter accounts collecting the reports of said sightings have become widely popular: As of Friday morning, @ClownsSightings has 293K followers; @ReportClowns has some 25.5K; @ClownWatching has 19.3K. With the exception of @ClownsSightings, these accounts were created in October 2016.
The problem is some of these accounts post images that purport to be evidence of a current-day clown epidemic, but are actually from years past, taken in different locations than they claim. This isn’t the first time old or faked photos have remade the rounds on social media — have we already forgotten the fake photos the sprung out of Hurricane Sandy? That iconic swirling storm over Manhattan was actually from 2011, and there were no sharks swimming down the streets. With the clown panic, we’re seeing the same kind of online hysteria based on flimsy foundation.
This tweet, referencing a clown chasing someone around Peoria, Arizona, was so popular it was added to a Twitter Moment earlier this week about the incidents. The image in the tweet, however, was a very old one. Google Reverse Image Search (Catfish has made this tool so widely known, I’m shocked this post hasn’t been written elsewhere yet) brings up many past uses of the image, including a 2014 story about a clown terrifying residents of Wasco, California.
Then there’s this September 22 story about a clown stalking Denver residents. The story included this photo:
Again, Reverse Image Search traces that photo to a few places, including a 2014 CollegeHumor roundup about creepy clowns (and it was actually taken from an even older story — one from 2013 — about a creepy clown in the U.K.). These images are a little different, in that they are zoomed in, leading me to believe their origins actually go even further back.
These are, obviously, the same picture.
A now-deleted @ReportClowns tweet included a photo that it said “maybe be fake” of a clown spotted in El Dorado Hills, California. The Ringer took a screenshot of the photo:
It’s actually not fake, but it is inaccurate! That image can be traced back to a rash of stories about a creepy clown sighting that did happen, just not in California — there’s evidence that overwhelmingly associates that image with an alleged September 2016 clown sighting in West Virginia.
This video of a clown in Florida destroying someone’s pumpkin while staring at their surveillance camera is horrifying, but it’s not part of the recent rash of sightings (though this was posted by @ClownSighting, an account that has been reporting the recent incidents this week) — there are various links to this exact video on YouTube, dating back to almost two years ago. The account doesn’t say that it’s recent, but publishing it this week among alleged current reports could be seen as misleading.
Here’s another photo from a now-deleted @ReportClowns tweet:
That photo is from a 2012 CollegeHumor post.
This one, also from a now-deleted tweet, is from Webster, Massachusetts:
Except it’s not. It’s a pretty obvious duplication of this 2014 tweet about a sighting in Indiana.
Whoever runs @SpookyClowns (203K followers), which has also posted some pictures of clown sightings from years past, says that all of the pictures and reports the account is posting are from user submissions, and none are verified. “I also do not condone violence and the sole purpose of this account is to shed light on where clowns are currently being sighted,” I was told. “To [warn] my followers to be cautious around their area.”
Are the creepy clowns real? Some of them, certainly. Is this hysteria legitimate? I mean, yeah, probably, to a degree — people are really scared, and if recent history (and just all history, probably) has taught us anything, it’s that scared people don’t have the best judgement. Should you buy a clown costume? I’d say no. Should you hunt a clown? Definitely not. But should you fear for your safety due to every photo on Twitter of a clown? Sorry to be the fun ruiner here if you enjoy a good Halloween scare, but it feels like a hard no. You can’t trust everything on the internet, even when it taps into your possibly unjustified and undeniably pop culture–induced fears.
An earlier version of this story misstated the location of a 2014 clown sighting reported on Twitter. It was in Indiana, not Chicago.